FutureProof: Adjusting to changing needs in education

A lot of people turned to education as unemployment took a foothold

Seán Rowland, founder and president of Hibernia College

Seán Rowland, founder and president of Hibernia College


It’s an ill wind that blows no good and the draught of recession has done nothing but fill the sails of Hibernia College. With the government tightening funding for third-level institutions, this privately owned online college is flying well above the turbulence.

Founded over 10 years ago and offering degree and master’s qualifications including teacher training online, Hibernia has proven there’s strong demand for private third-level education here and beyond. Classes are delivered through multimedia lectures, video, podcasts and downloadable documents. With the recession forcing many to rethink their careers, Hibernia has benefited.

“A rise in unemployment had people looking for alternative careers,” says college president Dr Seán Rowland. “The college has grown each year over the past 12 years and part of that was definitely linked to the recession.”

Early courses included hotel management and pharmaceutical medicine but it was the decision in 2003 to allow Hibernia to provide primary teacher training that really startled its bricks and mortar competitors. “An awful lot of people in banking and insurance, any of the major areas hit by unemployment, turned to education,” says Rowland. “Initially we saw a lot of people who were substitute teachers but weren’t fully qualified, taking the course. Now, we see more and more people coming from other professions into teaching.”

Since its first intake of students in 2003, Hibernia’s teacher-training programme now provides more primary teachers each year than any other course in the country.

For individuals wanting to retrain for a new career without chucking in the day job, the college has also proven attractive. Rowland says a key benefit is that students can gain a globally accredited degree without incurring accommodation, travel and other costs.

“If you talk to our graduates, an awful lot of them go to study when they put their children to bed. Our courses are very flexible – it’s in your time, in your space, you don’t have to drive to campus. There are a lot of factors that will save you time and money.”

Accredited courses
Expanding its portfolio, the college now offers accredited courses in business, computing, management, teaching, science as well as continuing professional development modules. “We offer London School of Economics online so you can get a degree in business or computing from LSE even if you are living in Belmullet,” says Rowland.

But a driver of Hibernia’s growth has been in exporting education with its programmes reaching 35 countries. Last year, it entered a joint venture with Peking University, China, which sees the two institutions collaborate to provide postgraduate education in medicines development and regulatory sciences across China and southeast Asia. “Our tutors based in Ireland are now tutoring across the world,” says Rowland.

He doesn’t envy his publicly funded competitors. “It’s a very precarious position to be in at a time of crisis, to be relying on the State for your funding . . . At Hibernia we have very simple maths, we have to bring in the funding to pay the bills.

“Our financial model is very simple,” he says. “We don’t have buildings and swimming pools and sports centres, so our costs are lower. We’re engaged in teaching, learning and research. We don’t do food and beverage, we don’t do facilities, we don’t do housing or any of those things. Those are the big ticket items.”

He thinks change in the sector is necessary, but those running Ireland’s traditional third- level institutions are stymied by legacy issues.

“We’re not good at cancelling courses and saying ‘that was great in the 1970s, but it’s not relevant any more’. We need to do a little more trimming and a little more analysis and see how we can smarten up with regard to multiple courses being offered in the same field in a country the size of this.

“I think Ruairí Quinn had done a very good job of rationalising and grouping colleges – it needs to be done. It may be that, as a result of the downturn, austerity may create a tighter ship.”

So has the college been unscathed by recession?

“I wouldn’t say that. I’d say that, because we were fairly nimble, we could adjust to the market. If we were 15 years older, we might have been locked into market practices – but we weren’t and I think that timing was important. We were answering needs that were there rather than saying, ‘this is what we do, do you want it or not’.”

Hibernia employs about 450 tutors, lecturers and supervisors and 116 back office staff. Rowland estimates his college has educated about 14,000 students in Ireland.

In growth mode, he says there are clear opportunities for Hibernia in Britain and the US. “We have plenty of faculty who can teach and they don’t need to leave Ireland to do it.”

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